All you who sleep tonight…

 

The message on my phone, blandly said,” To date we have distributed : Non perishable bi weekly and monthly rations to 25,761 people. Ready to eat hot meals : 57,901. Vegetables purchased from farmers for distribution : 11,550 kgs”.

I had been initially at the periphery and later, a little more involved in a couple of areas of the entire operation and I knew that the figures were quite impressive.

I don’t think many agencies that had gamely stepped in to help the affected had much experience in this sort of an activity. How many in the metros would have had the experience to provide relief while a crisis is actually unfolding around you ? Real time. Heck…forget an Indian metro, not many agencies anywhere in the world would have much experience in this.

However, forget pride, there was not even a remote level of satisfaction that I felt.

The last 35 -40 days had passed like a blur. It was towards the end of March…or was it early April, that I had gone on my first distribution trip. Delivering around 14 bags of monthly rations at two different locations.

It has been a perplexing mix of an emotional journey – a little bit of shame and guilt about my lack of awareness of their troubles… their existence in many ways, a growing sense of despair at their situation and soon a mounting mixture of indignation and anger at the powers that be, who never factored in the situation of millions of such people, in their game plan.

*****

I was curious.

How will the process work ? Who will we be distributing these rations to ? How do we identify them ? Where will we be meeting them ?

In many ways, it was an underwhelming night. In both locations, the process lasted just a few minutes. We reach the location, we call the main contact, we  hand over the bags and we leave.

If I was expecting any deep insight, or a  life altering experience, I couldn’t have been more off the mark. It was a very ordinary event. 

But one small conversation stuck.  

My companion, had chatted warmly with the group that arrived to pick up their supplies. Asked them where they were from, what they did. Coincidentally,  one of them, he must have been in his late teens, was from the same district and it could have been just that indescribable comfort at finding someone from the same vicinity as his home, that made the kid, almost break down while narrating his story.

He was a carpenter and had landed in Bangalore just a couple of days before the lockdown. Most of the money he had, had run out during the journey itself. He and his mates were housed along with others from the same area but life was brutal – bhookh se mar rahe hain, sir ( We are dying of hunger, sir ). 

Even now, I wonder, how a kid, from a small town would have felt, thousands of miles  from a small village,  that was home, in a truly big, strange, intimidating city. Away from family. Without a job. Without money. Without food. And no idea of, forget the future, but how even the coming week looked like. How he will survive. 

Terrifying thought.

*****

Setting up such an operation wouldn’t have been easy.

Deciding what should be supplied. What is essential ? What can be nutritious ?

For how long ? A fortnight ? A month ?

Where to buy these supplies from ?

Who will set up the packing operations ? Where ? A reasonably large space will be needed.

How will the supplies be transported ?

Getting passes from the authorities to roam around during the lockdown.

Getting the cops to accompany if the distribution is to a large group to manage the crowd.

And, of course…getting the funds to run the operation.

I wasn’t there for any of the initial period of setting up the operations but the learning curve, I am sure, would have been a steep one. Operational issues are relatively easy to get a grip on.

There are far tougher questions out there.

*****

As we handed over the bags to him and were walking towards our car, two other elderly men hesitantly walked up to us. They hadn’t been earning ever since the lockdown and asked us if we have a few bags to spare. Their families were struggling.

We didn’t.

How do you tell a person, who has clearly struggled to overcome his reluctance to approach us, subdue  his pride and ask for help, that we could not help them ?

But, even if we had stocks to spare how do we know if the ask was genuine ? Were they being covered by other groups helping out but are looking at stocking up a bit more not knowing how long these uncertain times will last ? Moreover…can you blame anyone for doing that ?

At the same time,  if a family stocks up for the future at the cost of another that is going hungry  

It felt a bit like playing God.

*****

Recces.

If we do proper recces, identify clearly the people who are in need, who are not being covered by any other agency, we could hone in more accurately on those who are truly in need.

Go to a location. Meet the people. Get an estimate of the number of families, people, the number of houses / rooms. Mark the location on Maps. Get a Point of Contact for future communication. Send the data to a central team that would check if anyone else has covered the community in the recent past.

Over to them.

Different settlements were identified on the map. The details were cross verified. They were  marked as red and green. If red, it meant not covered and meant a yes for distribution.

Tokens were given. Made it easier during the  actual distribution. At least, the bags will definitely be given to those who have been identified as needing it. The same team that did the recce will try to go for the distribution. Easier to identify the right people.

But.

Not easy.

*****

In many ways it was a textbook distribution.

There were 30 bags to distribute. The PoC was a very efficient lady and had a clear plan in place. We were asked to put down 10 bags at a time. She had arranged for ten people to come at a time and the entire process went off extremely smoothly. 

However, a truck coming in to a locality attracts attention. Especially, during lockdown time when no one has much to do and are usually sitting outside their homes.

 A small crowd assembled.

A young man begged for at least a single bag to be given to him. Another lady, pleaded for help for her tenants. She had been helping out with her own rations but naturally that was not enough. There were families with infants. They need help. A third man demanded to know our basis for distribution. Why was he being ignored ?

This was the first drop of the trip. There were three more drops to finish. Everyone could see the bags still in the truck. While we were trying to explain why we could not spare any for them. Taking their contact numbers and promising them that we will return. Its not easy to see the disappointment in their eyes. Or the scepticism. 

We have to leave as they were crowding around us.

Because – social distancing.

*****

Its been just a little over two months back that a horrible new word crept insidiously into our daily vocabulary.

Social distancing.

There were real risks for anyone going out. It multiplies many times over if you are going into densely populated localities and a crowd gathers.

Strict rules were laid out. Protocols were established.

All volunteers MUST be wearing gloves and masks. Carry a sanitizer with you. Clean all touchpoints when you return to your car – the gear shift, the steering wheel. Get back into your house and head straight for a bath. Clothes go in a heap into a bucket of hot water and then for a wash. Wallets. Glasses. Phone. Everything gets a brush with the sanitizer.

Every time.

Every single time.

And, if a crowd gathers. If they don’t listen. Leave. Even if the distribution is not complete. You can return to complete it later.

But. Do. Not. Put. Yourself. At. Risk.

Also, while distributing,  all the recipients have to queue up maintaining social distancing.

Which always makes me wonder.

*****

There was a row of five or six rooms. Possibly around 10’ x 10’ or at the most 12’ x 12’. Not too tall. Cemented over. No paint was wasted on the walls. 

Towards the right, a little distance away, stood a smaller row of smaller cubicles. The toilets. The bathing area was in the open to the left. Common area and where they usually bathe in groups. 

“ How many of you stay in a room ? “

“ 5 or 6 of us”.

5 people in a 100 sft room. Social distancing ? 

When we say there is a complete lockdown, most of us talk from the perspective of the main roads. Take one of the side lanes and you will usually see a different world. People sitting together. Having a smoke. Standing outside the small fish stall. Or just sitting on the verandah of a cluster of shops and chatting. And these are areas where there are proper buildings. If you go to the settlements , its even more densely packed. 

Social distancing ?

Impractical. Illogical. Impossible.

*****

Amidst all the gloom, there definitely are innumerable instances that make you hopeful. How help will come up. Suddenly. Almost every time you need it.

The school that opened its doors and its auditorium to store all the stocks and for packing the bags. And, ensured that its canteen made tea and lunch for the workers.

The people at the FCI godown who ensured that our trucks didn’t have to wait in the queue – NGO ke log hain, jaldi kaam kar lo inka ( These are NGO folks, lets finish their loading quickly )

The guy who turned up to help out with the entire operations of ordering the supplies, getting the labour, arranging for the trucks.

The cops who would arrive at short notice to help out with the distribution if the number is rather high and the crowds need managing.

The guy who turned up with high quality masks and gloves and PPE kits for all the workers involved in the packing and for the volunteers. And got chicken biriyani for the workers who were putting in some tremendous work.

The families who heard that the workers were working the night shift and we had forgotten to arrange for dinner and immediately cooked up a delicious meal for 10-15 people and sent it over.

And, of course, the scores of volunteers, always eager to jump in. To put in long hours in the field. To take up any work that needs to be done, to attend to any issue that needs attention. Day after day.

But, its easy to be lost in the gloom.

*****

“ Sir, can you help me ? “

“Bolo”. ( Tell me )

“ Can you help us get back home ? “ 

We had just distributed supplies to around 50 people who were contract workers for a rather well known company. Supplies that will last them for at least two weeks. 

“ Why would you want to go home ? You have got this support which will last you for the next two weeks. Things will open up soon, work will start. Isn’t it better to stay back? “

“Nahi sir, bahut ho gaya. Bas ghar jaana hai ( No, sir, we have had enoughwe just want to go back home.)

Many of them had worked for four five years in the same company. They hadn’t got their salaries for the last month. However, what seemed to hurt them was the fact that no one had called them to check on them. No one was taking their calls. They were simply left to be on their own. Forgotten.

“ We will do farming at home. We will be with our own people. We will manage. Just help us get back home.” 

They had been going to the nearby police station. Had filled in the online forms, had submitted physical forms on top of it. A few of them had gone to the police station once again that morning to check on the status. And got caned. One of them showed me his injuries. He had applied a bluish white paste on them. After a while, I asked him what ointment it was. It was toothpaste. They could only apply what they had. 

I am usually reluctant to promise help unless I am sure I can deliver. I couldn’t do that this time.  I told them I will try.

And we all did. In multiple ways. Reaching out to multiple people. Cops. Bureaucrats. Politicians. However, nothing seemed to work.

Then we heard that there were 200,000 applicants. There never will be trains for that many applicants. And we hadn’t reached out to THE person who mattered.

He kept calling me. Four, five times a day. Always hopeful that I will have some good news for him. Telling me why he wanted to go home. Hopeful. I could only listen.

This morning, I conceded defeat. I told him that we have been unable to get any support from anywhere.

He had called me from outside the police station. He was once again waiting there. Despite getting caned. Despite being treated badly. Despite everything.

Because he wanted to go home. Another kid from another small village from deep inside the country. 

He hasn’t called me since.

*****

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hands to left or right,
And emptiness above…

ALL YOU WHO SLEEP TONIGHT – Vikram Seth

Tales from the Mara II – Siligi, Supermom

 

Siligi.

It meant, ‘ The Dependable’.

A better name couldn’t be there for a cheetah mom with six cubs.

Siligi had started of with seven cubs, but one of them had died. Seven is an unusually large number to litter. Cheetahs usually have about 2-4 cubs. Seven ? Quite uncommon.

There was a slight twinge of sadness in the air in our group after spending bulk of the previous days with Selenkei searching for her lost cub and then the scare from the Fast Five.

Maybe, a day with six, lively, hyperactive, curious cubs would just be the tonic to lift us up.

Other than the obvious fact that it would always be fun to photograph six cubs along with their mother.

So, Siligi it was.

*****

Siligi’s territory was quite far from our camp. Near the Black Rock Pride’s area.

Which necessarily meant an earlier than usual start. It was a chilly, misty morning when we started and we reached the place that Siligi was supposed to inhabit without too many distractions along the way. The light was still poor even though the sun was up.

A little to the left of the track, on slightly higher ground was where she was known to spend most of her time. It was a very different terrain. There was a fair bit of tree cover. A lot of small bushes. Not open land where you could clearly see what was lying around you. Apparently, not the terrain that you usually find cheetahs in but one that was brilliantly suited for a mother with six cubs. So much cover.

*****

Six cubs.

We wondered how she was managing to raise them. As I had written earlier, a mother cheetah has her plate full with risks. Its tough to fend for yourself in the wild, bringing up 2-3 cubs was fraught with danger for the cubs ( it shows in the 90% mortality  )…but six cubs !!? That was almost insane.

Look at the difficulties.

That many more to keep an eye on all the time.

That many more mouths to feed. Which automatically means, that many more kills that Siligi will need to make.

As they grow a little older, it would be that much tougher. They would be hungrier, she would need to kill either far more frequently or much larger prey.

Cheetahs, like all predators, naturally have more than their share of failed hunts. And a hunt is possibly most exhausting for a cheetah since they rely on speed to make their kill. Stealth, ambush etc is not their style. Its exhilarating to see a cheetah hunt purely for the speed, skill and the adrenalin rush just watching it brings. But it tires out the cheetah. Totally. They would require an hour or two to recover from the exhaustion.

Now, if a cheetah would need to make more kills to feed more mouths, add to that the number of failed attempts and you can get an idea of how tiring it would be.

Oh, and the challenges don’t stop there.

They also lose a distressingly large percentage of their successful kills. To hyenas, leopards and lions…for more than one reason. Firstly, they are simply too out of breath and tired to put up even a semblance of a fight with any of these. More importantly, they cannot risk a fight. Even a slight injury while protecting her meal might impact her speed and agility and that would put the future at severe risk. Better to recognize the percentages and slink away and hope that the next successful kill and meal aren’t too far away.

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The previous evening, we saw a pregnant cheetah leave her kill and walk off. You can see a hyena and a jackal in the background feasting on her efforts

Yeah, add that too to the number of hunts that Siligi would need to make.

Supermom.

*****

We went up the slight incline.  A little rocky and a lot bushy.

Two other vehicles were already there. All of us went around the bushes, wanting to see if the family was resting there. Or, if we need to go elsewhere and continue our search. The family would roam around a fair bit, though one never knows when she has to think of six cubs.

And then we saw her. Standing proud. Graceful.

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There she was. Siligi. With her brood around her.

In the open. With her cubs around her. We anxiously counted them. Four…five…is there a sixth or …. ?

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We counted anxiously…four, five …yes, there was the sixth one too. Phew !

No stress, all six were around. Running around, sticking together and rather close to the mom who looked very alert. Naturally.

“She will hunt” Antony was confident. Her stomach did not seem to be full and well…six cubs to feed. There were a lot of gazelles around. So prey was available.

They remained in the open for a little while before the entire family slowly moved away to the edge of the hill. They stayed there for quite a while but clearly the entire family seemed to be very interested in something on the other side.

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There was something interesting down that slope that deserved such attention

On the other side was a small river or a largish stream and something definitely had caught their interest.

Siligi started the descent and we decided to go over to the other side and to get better positions when they cross the stream and possibly better placed to see Siligi hunt.

*****

Cheetah cubs have this really cute mohawk. A very prominent ridge of fur at the back of the neck running down to the rump. There is a theory that this makes them look like the honey badger and is protective in nature. ( Honey badgers are bad news in the wild. No one, I mean, no one messes with them )

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That mohawk is definitely a very cute sight on a boisterous cub.

This mohawk stays prominent till the cubs are around three months of age and then slowly starts to disappear but can still be discernible till the cubs are much older.

Siligi’s cubs were around two to two and a half years old so the mohawks were very prominent.

Cheetah moms can sometimes leave the cubs for almost as long as 48 hours when they are much younger so that she can hunt to sustain her lactating state. The moms are also quite practical. If the food supply is scarce, mothers could abandon her cubs. But, she does try her damnest best to ensure that she protects them.

Of course, as they grow older, the cubs try to help her in the hunt. But, they are more of a nuisance initially. Even when they finally leave the mother, the cubs are not yet fully developed as a hunting machine. That is one of the reasons that the siblings tend to stick together across genders for at least 6-7 months. During this period they become better and then the female goes off on her own. The brothers often continue to stick together.

*****

We had lost the family.

We had crossed the river. Siligi too had made her way down to the river.

And vanished.

We along with the other vehicles ( they too had followed us ) roamed around looking for her in the bushes but not a sight.

“ She will definitely hunt this morning. She won’t waste time”

There was an urgency in Antony’s voice. We had a very real possibility to see her hunt.

On a whim, he decided to cross the river again and go back to the side where we had first seen them.

The gazelles are all alert. That’s the best signal in the wild. They were all looking into one direction.

Siligi has to be there. Behind one of the bushes. Hunting.

There she was.

Under a small tree. Panting.

A Thomson’s gazelle’s inert body lay next to her.

She had made her kill.

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Sigli had made her kill. Hidden from all prying eyes.

*****

What followed was any wildlife lover’s dream. Well, maybe it would have made even a total city slicker fall in love with wildlife.

Siligi was catching her breath. While keeping a sharp eye out for any other predators.

Satisfied that the coast was safe, she started crying out for her cubs.

We kept our eyes focused in the direction where Antony said her cubs were last seen. I had lost total sense of direction in all the circles we had made looking for the family !

And then they came. One fur ball followed another. Racing down the dew topped, green slope.

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Super cute. Bundles of fur racing down to their mom !

Scampering to their mother. And food. Running on their short little legs, giving out sharp cries every now and then.

The cubs made it straight for the dead gazelle. All of them crowded around the morning’s meal. It was taking them quite a while to get through the skin. Siligi didn’t help. Maybe it was time her cubs learnt to do this on their own. And then we saw that the breach had been made.

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The cubs took quite some time to cut through the skin.

The mother stayed away for most of the time. It was a tiny meal and definitely not enough for the kids and her. She would need to hunt again. For herself. This meal was for her kids.

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Sigli…keeping a sharp eye for any danger

For now, she kept a sharp eye out.

*****

The cubs had a real go at the food. You could hear the noises clearly as they enjoyed their meal. Teeth against bones. Mews. Irritated noises when one sibling edged out another.

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For a long time you could just see one large bundle of fur. All cubs totally focused on their meal.

Maybe the cubs were really ravenous or maybe like kids they don’t know when to stop when a juicy meal is in front of them.

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This lil’ one broke off and sized us up carefully. He looked kinda cute, like any baby with its meal all over its face.

Towards the end, Siligi also joined her brood to get a few bites in.

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Siligi decides to join in. Looking around to see if its safe for her to focus on the food !

Tummies full, the kids were ready to play. And what a boisterous bunch they were !

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First it was a rough game of tag cum ‘let-me-knock-you-down”. A bone of the gazelle became a stick they could play with. The skin of the unfortunate gazelle became a prized possession worth fighting for.

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Catch me if you can !! A limb of the poor gazelle has become a plaything !
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Ownership battles !! That rag is the skin of the gazelle…well…

They were having a blast and often one of us , eyes firmly glued to the happy scenes in front of us through the camera, would break into a loud chuckle watching them play.

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And what is this game called ?

Occasionally, one of the cubs would wander upto Siligi who was resting contentedly and get a thorough cleaning. Or Siligi would walk upto another cub and give that one a fussing over. And when a cub, returns the favour to the mother….total Awww moment for everyone !!

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Aww mom !!! That hurts !!!! A cub gets a thorough cleaning up.
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“Your eyes are dirty !”
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” Thank you, mom !”….seriously heartwarming to see them !

The morning was picture perfect. Warm sun. Green grass. Blue skies. A happy contented family out on a picnic on the meadows.

Incredible scenes. Just incredible.

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I mean…how often can one witness such lovely scenes !?!

Once again, for the nth time, I thanked my good fortune that I could witness such a morning.

*****

But, as has often been the case this trip, the morning’s tale doesn’t end there.

Siligi still needed to eat. She had to hunt.

After a nice, lazy time with her kids, she finally got up. Alert. With intent.

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Hark ! Who goes there !?

And, suddenly vanished.

We raced after her. Where had she gone !?

And, just like that she reappeared. With another kill.

Boy, this cheetah is incredibly efficient.

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Another hunt. Another kill. As simple as that !

*****

The events of the morning played all over again. Siligi cried out to her cubs. And, after a few long worrying minutes, the cubs appeared, one by one, running upto her. They fussed over her, naturally not too interested in the kill after the feast they just had.

Then, something changed. You just got the feeling that there was some tension in the air. The cubs were all alert. All of them looking through the bushes into the distance. When I say alert, I mean really, really alert. The way a 100 meter sprinter is at the racing blocks when the starter has his gun raised.

Suddenly, the cubs were off. They bolted. Madly. Running for their lives. Something had spooked them.

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Spooked. They really bolted. They were scared. Very scared.

Siligi was crouching. Watching the same gap her cubs had been staring at just a few seconds ago.

“ A lioness”

Oh boy. Would we be seeing another depressing scene unfold in front of us !

Siligi too had gone off, away from where her cubs had disappeared, presumably to distract the lioness from her cubs.

A vehicle roared into life. It was the rangers. They sped off into the gap. We couldn’t see the action, but apparently one of the rangers got off the jeep. The lioness took the hint and vanished.

After a long, interminable few minutes, Siligi reappeared a little further away, going in search of her cubs. Her food can wait.

Danger averted. For the moment.

That’s how it is in the wild. You never know from where the next danger to your life will spring up. One moment you can be having the time of your life. The next, death will be staring at you.

As we drove away, leaving the family to calm themselves down, one couldn’t help once again marvel at the cheetah mom and her struggles to keep her family alive. Against such unbelievable odds.

Supermom indeed.

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SuperMom. Without a doubt.

*****

A few days back got an update.

Siligi and her cubs were not seen for almost ten days. Then they reappeared.

With four cubs.

Two more of the six had died.

Sad, while the news was, maybe it was for the better. Siligi would find it easier to protect four cubs than six. She would find it easier to hunt and kill for four mouths than for six.

Siligi’s fight, and her family’s fight, for their lives will continue to play out in that hilly, densely covered slope she has as her home.

Hopefully, the four cubs make it. The world definitely could do with a few more cheetahs.

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Four kids are easier to manage. Hope they make it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from the Mara I – The lil’ brave cub

When we first saw them, they were two tiny dots, one much smaller than the other, in a sea of a lovely shade of light green.

The Mara had been witnessing rains of a nature that December has rarely seen, and from our vehicle it appeared as if a green carpet has been thrown all over earth’s surface. The wetness from the rain that had just ceased combined with a weak sunlight to throw up a surface that softly sparkled as it swayed to the gentle breeze.

It was a lovely morning.

There was a strange kind of desolation in the way the mother and cub were sitting, heads turning this way and that, occasionally giving out their sharp calls. The gazelles and topis a short distance away, who had first alerted us to the possibility of a predator in the vicinity, were completely ignored.

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There was a sad, forlorn air about the two

“ She had two cubs. Where is the second one ?”

That was Antony, who runs the Matira Bush Camp and who was doubling up as our guide.

“ She must have lost one of her cubs. They are crying out for the lost cub”.

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It was particularly distressing to hear the cub keep calling out for its missing sibling

*****

Cheetahs are an endangered species. One report says that the current cheetah population in the wild is around 7000 and that this number is expected to decline by more than 50% over the next 15 years !

While we humans have played our usual depressing role in this reduction, even without us, the challenges that face the cheetah are significant.

More than 90% of the cheetah cubs don’t survive beyond the first three months.

Read that again – more than 90% don’t survive.

Female cheetahs are largely solitary animals. Males come together with a female only for the purposes of mating and it’s the female that brings up the cubs.

All on her own.

And, its tough, incredibly tough.

The mother has to leave her cubs, hidden safely while she goes off on a hunt. Often walking long distances to make her kill. Cheetahs also tend to lose a lot of their kills to other predators like hyenas, leopards and lions. If any of these animals appear, they simply walk away, not wanting to risk a fight the conclusion of which is a given. What this means, is simply that the time a mother could be away from her kids could be rather long.

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The previous evening, in the middle of a downpour we saw another pregnant cheetah, Amani, being robbed of her kill by a hyena. The way of the wild.

The cubs are in danger all this time. Any predator could stumble upon them.

Quite often, the family might encounter any of the larger predators. In a finely honed routine, the cubs bolt at the slightest indication of danger and the mother tries to confront and distract the predator trying to draw them away from the cubs.

She later comes back to the same spot calling out for her cubs to get reunited.

Anything could have happened to the cubs in the meantime.

*****

The cub was standing a little apart from its mother, looking around disconsolately, crying out occasionally. A lonely, forlorn figure.

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It just looked incredibly sad.

Occasionally, the mother would reach out to her cub and give it a reassuring lick. On other occasions, the cub will walk upto its mother for a comforting head bump. The mother had fallen quiet. The cub, still occasionally gave out a sharp cry out for its sibling.

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A comforting kiss…
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…or a reassuring head bump followed by a quick lick

They stayed where they were. Wet and dejected.

We waited there for a long time. Hoping that soon there will be a return call and we would witness a joyful reunion. Though we knew, that, that was highly unlikely.

When we left them, both of them were lying down, the cub with its head burrowed in the grass.

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Sigh. The picture of despondency

*****

We went around, ostensibly looking for other animals to photograph, but also silently looking for any traces of the missing cub. I wasn’t sure what we would do if we saw it but, of course,  we didn’t.

There was a researcher who was studying cheetahs and Antony informed her about the missing cub. She had seen both cubs with the mother that very morning. She narrated her sighting, how the mother and cubs came down a slope, entering a bushy area with a lot of trees and out of her sight.

A terrain where both leopards and hyenas had been sighted earlier.

Everyone is extremely sensitive to the risk that cheetahs face and the rangers are always in the vicinity, often stepping in to protect the cubs but of course, they cannot be and maybe, should not be around everywhere.

*****

When we returned to the scene, the mother and cub were huddled together and the mom was giving the cub a thorough cleaning, an act that was possibly equally comforting to both.

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A rather thorough cleaning was under way. It possibly comforted both mother and cub

Soon, they were off.

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Walking determinedly in the direction of the same dense terrain the researcher had talked about. Potential prey, a pair of jackals appearing to follow them closely…all were ignored. One of them wandered quite close to the cub and the kid barely gave it a glance. Supreme indifference.

They reached the edge of the tree and bush cover and both of them sat down looking in, calling out, as if willing the missing cub to reappear.

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It was somewhere in there that they possibly lost the third member of their small family

Heartbreaking.

*****

Many vehicles came and went. There was nothing much happening. We stayed put along with the researcher’s vehicle.

The mother would regularly get up and walk around sniffing and calling out. The cub stayed put. We wondered how tired and hungry it would be. At some point, the mother would need to give up on her search and hunt.

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They didn’t enter the woods. Just walked around the edge. Scanning. Calling. Waiting.

 

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Giving out occasional cries but mostly in silence, they waited

As the sun set, we decided to pack up too and leave, reluctant and quite worried. The area wasn’t very safe for the two cheetahs. We had heard a pair of mating cheetahs and of course, other predators also were around.

The mother and cub stayed there. As we left, one of the last images we had was of the mother giving another reassuring lick to her cub.

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And another comforting kiss…my favourite frame of the day

It had been a long, terrible day for the two of them.

But little did either of them know what was in store for them the following day.

*****

The Fast Five.

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When these guys move…the famous soundtrack from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly plays in my mind. Total cowboys these guys.

A unique coalition of cheetahs. Not all five of them are brothers – three of them are. No one knows how they came to form the group, but they have been together for quite a few years. They roam around as if they own the entire earth and no territory seems to bound them. They could be in the centre of the Mara one day and in the Conservancy the next day.

But right now they were smack in the centre of the Mara. We had spent most of the day with them. We saw them botch up a hunt of an old topi, waited for them to regain their breath and watched a magnificent hunt.

Now their stomachs were full, but they were still roaming around.

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They had feasted on a large kill. Their bulging stomachs tell the tale

Not too far from Selenkei and her surviving cub.

*****

Male lions, when they attack the lions of another pride or when the oust the reigning males of a pride, kill all the cubs. This is to both ensure the dominance of their genetic streak and also to get the lioness in heat so that they can mate with them.

The Fast Five had seen Selenkei.

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That moment we realise that Selenkei and her cub have been spotted

She had crouched low in the grass that was fairly abundant thanks to the unseasonal rain, made her cub lie even lower in the grass.

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Selenkei slinks low into the grass, her cub snuggling close to her…watching the approaching Five

But she was still seen.

The Fast Five were going to mark their territory at a nearby tree but now they were focused on her. They were making a bee line to Selenkei.

Our hearts sank. What fresh hell awaited Selenkei and her cub ?

Will the Fast Five kill the cub just as male lions do with cubs of another pride ?

*****

The rangers now swung into action.

To us onlookers we couldn’t get a clear sense of what they were doing. First they tried to ward off the Fast Five onto a different direction.

They failed.

The Fast Five continued relentlessly.

As they reached very close to Selenkei the rangers appeared again. One of them even got out of the vehicle with a gun in his hand.

Meanwhile, in our vehicle, Antony was getting agitated.

*****

Lions do kill the cubs of another pride.

A female cheetah however mates with multiple males and it is never very clear which male would actually be the father.

When a male cheetah meets a female they would be mainly keen to see if the female is in heat. They do this be sniffing her urine. A female cheetah who has cubs will not be in heat and the males usually simply move on, since they also have no clue if the cub is his or not.

All this is science.

But can we depend on it ? Antony was sanguine about the outcome of the interaction.

*****

Antony somehow managed to communicate to the rangers to leave the Fast Five alone and that they will not harm Selenkei and the cubs.

They moved close to the two.

There was a lot of action that was going on. The five males had circled both Selenkei and her cub and we could see a lot of snarling and baring of teeth at the two. The mother would hiss right back but mostly stayed down looking up at the other males.

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The standoff. The Fast Five stayed close to her. The cub is sitting bravely while you can see the mother lying on the ground

Often some of the cheetahs will drift away from the mother and cub but still keeping a close eye on them. And then one of them will walk up, sniff the mother’s scent, snarl at the cub. The others will join in and again we will all be back to worrying on what will happen next.

It was during these interactions that we saw that this cub was one plucky one ! It would snarl right back at the males and on a couple of occasions the tiny thing leapt up at the male when it came too close to it !

Despite Antony’s complete nonchalance and conviction about the end result, all of us were worried. Very nervous. It would have taken any of the males just a second to kill the cub

We stayed there for a long time and the same cycle repeated time and again.

There was the obvious point – if the Fast Five wanted to kill the cub, they would have done it rightaway.

Maybe they won’t.

The sun was setting and we got some awesome images. The story hadn’t ended but we had to leave.

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The Fast Five didnt leave. They stayed put as the sun set.

When we left, the Fast Five were still around the mother and cub.

*****

The next day we eagerly asked for any news.

As Antony had said, the Fast Five had left the mother and cub and had moved over to the Conservancy.

The mother and cub had lived to fight another day.

Their struggles will continue. Their fight for survival will continue. The lions, the leopards, the hyenas all will continue to be predators and Selenkei will need to use all her wiles to protect her cub from them.

The image of the lil cub bravely jumping at five full grown males will stay with me. I hope it makes it.

I am sure anyone who had spent some time with the mother and cub over the two days would be rooting big time for the plucky lil cub. Like we were.

Cheers to you, kiddo !

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Hope you stick around, kiddo !